Saṅkhāra – Should Not be Translated as a Single Word

December 7, 2021; revised December 10, 2021; August 27, 2022; January 25, 2023 (#8)

Saṅkhāra is a critical Pāli word with different meanings depending on the context. It should not be translated with a single word, like choices, processes, activity, mental formations, etc., as commonly done these days.


1. I referred to English translations of two key suttas where “saṅkhāra” translated as “choices” and “mental formations.” See “Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.”

  • According to those translations, ALL saṅkhāra would stop from arising if a mind is devoid of avijjā. In the two English translations quoted in the above post, “avijjā nirodhā saṅkhāra nirodho” is translated as “When ignorance ceases, choices cease” and “from the cessation of ignorance, there is the cessation of volitional processes.”
  • We all know that the Buddha’s mind became free of avijjā upon attaining Buddhahood. But then he lived for 45 years. Did not the Buddha generate any saṅkhāra during that whole time?
  • As discussed below, one cannot think, speak, or do anything without generating saṅkhāra!
  • That would illustrate the dangers of mindlessly translating Pāli suttas word by word without understanding the meaning of the sutta in the context of the topic.
Several Types of Saṅkhāra

2. The “Cūḷavedalla Sutta (MN 44)” discusses three types of saṅkhāra: kāya saṅkhāra, vacī saṅkhāra, citta saṅkhāra. The last type is (almost) the same as mano saṅkhāra.

  • In the English translations of this sutta at Sutta Central, three translators translate those three types of saṅkhāra in three different ways: “Physical, verbal, and mental processes,” “bodily process, the speech process, the mental process,” and “physical activity, verbal activity, and mental activity.”
  • However, all three types of saṅkhāra are MENTAL; they arise in mind. They are NOT physical processes, but they can control physical processes.
  • Kāya saṅkhāra arises in mind and controls bodily actions. Vaci saṅkhāra also occurs in the mind and may lead to speech. All three types of saṅkhāra appear in mind.
  • It is NOT POSSIBLE to find a single English word representing the different meanings of saṅkhāra in various suttas. We will discuss another way to categorize saṅkhāra below, but let us first briefly examine these three types of saṅkhāra.
Any Thought Has Mano Saṅkhāra

3. In the Cūḷavedalla Sutta (MN 44), citta (mano) saṅkhāra defined as, “vedanā and saññā.” See Ref. 1 below.

  • In most English translations, vedanā and saññā are feelings and perception (or recognition).
  • But vedanā is more like “sensing an external sensory input.” Saññā is the recognition of the sensory input (but includes one’s biases for such a sensory event.)
  • For example, tree roots feel vedanā (of nutrients in the soil), and the leaves of a tree feel the sunlight. Each can respond to such stimuli. For instance, we know that a plant “turns” towards sunlight over time, and tree roots “pull in” suitable nutrients.
  • Therefore, plants and trees have a basic form of vēdanā and saññā. A plant can “feel” when sunlight falls on it (vēdanā), and recognize that as sunlight (saññā). However, a plant CANNOT generate saṅkhārā (in thoughts or cittā) about those vēdanā and saññā. See, “Contact Between Āyatana Leads to Vipāka Viññāna.”
  • Only sentient beings (like people and animals) can generate saṅkhāra. For example, we know that a dog becomes joyful when seeing its owner but is aggressive towards strangers. A dog can generate lobha (affection for the owner) or dosa (in this case, aversion toward the stranger.)

4. Therefore, only living beings generate mano saṅkhāra. In other words, mano saṅkhāra are in any citta (“thought.”)

  • Abhidhamma clarifies this issue. Any citta (loosely translated as a thought) will ALWAYS arise with seven cetasika (mental factors.) Two of those seven are vedanā and saññā. Therefore, any “thought” is ALWAYS associated with vedanā and saññā.
  • In other words, it is impossible to think without generating mano saṅkhāra!
Vaci Saṅkhāra That Arise in the Mind Lead to Speech

5. The Cūḷavedalla Sutta (MN 44) defines vaci saṅkhāra as, “vitakka vicārā vacī saṅkhāro“; see Ref. 1.

  • Vitakka and vicāra are two cetasika that MAY ARISE in a citta. They arise when we consciously start thinking about something. Simply put, vitakka means to “turn attention to an ārammaṅa,” and vicāra is to “stay on that ārammaṅa to investigate.” 
  • When we do that, we either “talk to ourselves” or “speak out.” Both involve vaci saṅkhāra. See “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”
  • Since the Buddha spoke to others for 45 years after attaining the Buddhahood, it is clear that he generated a lot of vaci saṅkhāra.
All Bodily Actions Are Based on Kāya Saṅkhāra That arise in the Mind

6. Kāya saṅkhāra is defined as “Assāsa passāsā kāya saṅkhāro” in Ref. 1. Which means, “breathing in and out is due to kāya saṅkhāra.”

  • All bodily activities are due to kāya saṅkhāra. Breathing is just one aspect. The mind controls breathing, but we don’t need to breathe consciously. Then why is it called a type of saṅkhāra?
  • Again, we need to refer to Abhidhamma. All mental activities involve citta vithi. A single citta does not arise by itself. Cittas ALWAYS occur in a series of citta (citta vithi). However, we “feel” only those citta vithi that contain javana citta. Those citta vithis that maintain breathing do not have javana citta, and they are atiparittārammana citta vithi (i.e., “weak citta vithi“).
  • The fact that citta vithi are involved in breathing becomes apparent when you think about asthma patients. They need to breathe willfully, i.e., “make an effort to breathe.”
  • That sutta is mentioned because it happens all the time, except when unconscious. When unconscious, citta vithi cannot arise, and kammic energy keeps the body alive.
  • The critical point is that ANY body movement involves kāya saṅkhāra. To write, walk, run, or move any body part, we must do that with kāya saṅkhāra.
Avijjā Is Not Involved in Most Saṅkhāra!

7. Therefore, we generate numerous saṅkhāra during the day. That was true for the Buddha and Arahants as well. As long as one lives in this world, one will generate kāya, vaci, and mano saṅkhāra.

  • That is why it is foolish to translate “avijjā nirodhā saṅkhāra nirodhoas “When ignorance ceases, choices cease” or “from the cessation of ignorance, there is the cessation of volitional processes” in the two translations cited in the post, “Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.” We can also see that the English words “choices” and “volitional processes” do not apply to some types of saṅkhāra. For example, there is no need to make “choices” or “mental formations (consciously)” to breathe, but breathing involves kāya saṅkhāra.
  • Those translators don’t seem to realize that only abhisaṅkhāra will cease to arise in an Arahant. An Arahant would not have a trace of avijjā but obviously would generate all three types of saṅkhāra discussed above!
  • That type of translation distorts Buddha Dhamma! I have repeatedly pointed out that it leads to much confusion in discussion forums.
  • Now, let us discuss another way to categorize saṅkhāra that is directly relevant to “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra.” These types are saṅkhāra are abhisaṅkhāra, some of which (apuññābhisaṅkhāra) can lead to “bad kamma vipaka” as various forms of suffering. Some kinds of abhisaṅkhāra (puññābhisaṅkhāra) can lead to temporary relief from suffering (and even bouts of happiness) but will NEVER lead to a permanent end of suffering.
  • Let us discuss the special categorization of abhisaṅkhāra now.
Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda Involves Abhisankhara

8. Saṅkhāra in the step “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” refers to “abhisaṅkhāra.” “Paṭiccasamuppāda Vibhaṅga” explains the step “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” as, “Tattha katame avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā? Puññābhisaṅkhāro, apuññābhisaṅkhāro, āneñjābhisaṅkhāro.”

Translated: “What is meant by ‘avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā?’ That means Puññābhisaṅkhāra, apuññābhisaṅkhāra, āneñjābhisaṅkhāra.” For details, see “Sankhāra – What It Really Means.”

  • Such abhisaṅkhāra can be kāya, vaci, or mano saṅkhāra that we discussed above. But only a part of kāya, vaci, and mano saṅkhāra are abhisaṅkhāra.
  • Also, see “Saṅkhāra Sutta (AN 3.23).” The English translation is not that good, but it gives the basic idea. Note that “sabyābajjhaṁ kāyasaṅkhāraṁ abhisaṅkharoti” means “engaging in generating apuññābhisaṅkhāra. The opposite “abyābajjhaṁ kāyasaṅkhāraṁ abhisaṅkharoti” means “engaging in generating puññābhisaṅkhāra. Note that puññābhisaṅkhāra are “moral deeds done without the comprehension of the Noble Truths”; see #11 and #12 below. 
  • In other words, abhisaṅkhāra leads to kamma done with lobha, dosa, and moha. They are dasa akusala (three with the body, four with speech, and three with the mind). They are kāya kamma, vaci kamma, and mano kamma. See, “Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala).

9. Then a question arises: How can puññābhisaṅkhāra (puñña abhisaṅkhāra or MORAL ACTIONS) be done with lobha, dosa, moha?

  • Puññābhisaṅkhāra leads to puñña kamma that can bring “good results” in this world. 
  • That means such “good kamma” leads to “good kamma vipaka” (like health and wealth) during such “good existences.” Stronger ones can lead to rebirth in “good realms.”
  • However, such benefits are only temporary. Such births in “good realms” are rare. Even if we think we only do good deeds in this life, we may have done many “bad deeds” in past lives, which can still bring rebirths in “bad realms.” Puñña kamma becomes kusala kamma (that leads to Nibbāna) ONLY with the comprehension of Tilakkhana; see #11 below.

10. As we already noted, breathing takes place via kāya saṅkhāra. Raising one’s hand involves kāya saṅkhāra. Eating food involves kāya saṅkhāra. All these activities are NECESSARY to live life. We cannot categorize them as “good” or “bad.” Those are kammically neutral activities.

  • On the other hand, hitting another person with anger involves the apuññābhisaṅkhāra version of kāya saṅkhāra. So does stealing or sexual misconduct. Telling a lie is done with the apuññābhisaṅkhāra version of vaci saṅkhāra.
  • Preparing a meal and offering that to a bhikkhu or a homeless person involves the puññābhisaṅkhāra version of kāya saṅkhāra. Teaching Buddha Dhamma (or anything valuable) to others involves kāya and vaci saṅkhāra that belong to the category of puññābhisaṅkhāra.
  • Having a greedy or angry mindset is a mano saṅkhāra belonging to the apuññābhisaṅkhāra version. The same is true for having the ten types of wrong views. The opposites of those belong to the puññābhisaṅkhāra category.
Doing Good Deeds (Puñña Kamma) Is Not Enough to Stop Future Suffering

11. The point is that while “good deeds (puñña kamma)” can lead to periods of happiness in good realms, that would not remove the possibility of future rebirths in the apāyās.

  • Another way to say this is: “rebirths the apāyās will stop only upon understanding the dangers in the rebirth process, i.e., that this world is of anicca, dukkha, anatta nature (Tilakkhana.) That is when one becomes a Sotapanna. Attempts to overcome past “bad deeds’ by ONLY engaging in “good deeds” or puñña kamma will not be successful. However, it is necessary to engage in puñña kamma to gain that insight.
  • Instead, (while engaging in puñña kamma with puññābhisaṅkhāra) one MUST try to understand the three characteristics of this world of 31 realms. That is the ONLY WAY to avoid severe suffering in the future.
  • Understanding Tilakkhana leads to the cultivation of “Kusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda,” which leads to various stages of Nibbāna. See, “Kusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
Difference Between Puñña Kamma and Kusala Kamma

12. It is essential to understand the difference between puñña kamma and kusala kamma. Puñña kammā BECOME kusala kammā IF one comprehends Tilakkhana!.

  • Puññābhisaṅkhāra lead to puñña kamma.
  • The same puñña kamma done with the comprehension of Tilakkhana are NOT puññābhisaṅkhāra. They are not abhisaṅkhāra. They are “kusala-mula saṅkhāra.”
  • That is why the Kusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda process (that leads to Nibbāna) starts with “kusala-mula paccayā saṅkhāra.”
  • For details, see “Kilesa – Relationship to Akusala, Kusala, and Puñña Kamma” and “Kusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
  • For those unfamiliar with these terms, it may take a repeated reading of relevant posts to understand these concepts. Things will fall into place once one can get a foothold (like in a jigsaw puzzle).

1. In the “Cūḷavedalla Sutta (MN 44)“:

“Tayome, āvuso visākha, saṅkhārā—kāya saṅkhāro, vacī saṅkhāro, citta saṅkhāro”ti.

“Katamo panāyye, kāya saṅkhāro, katamo vacī saṅkhāro, katamo citta saṅkhāro”ti?

“Assāsapassāsā kho, āvuso visākha, kāya saṅkhāro, vitakka vicārā vacī saṅkhāro, saññā ca vedanā ca citta saṅkhāro”ti.

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